The Transformative Power of Fighting in the Art of Poekoelan Tjiminde Tulen
It’s dark, and I’m covered from head to toe in the blackest clothes I own. My hair sprouts the ferns I tangled into it when I was shown my hiding spot, and I am trying to keep my breath steady as I wait for the first person I will fight tonight. Four students are 20 hours into their 48-hour black belt test in the martial art of Poekoelan Tjiminde Tulen, and my five-foot-high self is the last obstacle between them and their candle at the end of the trail–a warm glow signifying that their 24-hour meditation period has begun.
As a student with just a year-and-a-half under my gold sash, I am still a beginning fighter and, despite the fact that I am the last of seven people who will attack each tester, the prospect of fighting four almost-black-belts on a narrow and rocky forest trail on a moon-free night fills my belly with turbulence. So I breathe. And when I hear Chris pass the giant fern I’m hiding behind, I jump out at him and we go at it, moving our fists and feet toward each other through the dark of night. We move fast, stones roll down the path, and my right contact slips out as he lands a strike on my face.
“Break,” says Janesa Kruse, our head teacher and a seventh-degree black belt. She is following the testers to determine when each of them has successfully prevented an attack or defended themselves against one, and makes sure we all stay safe in the process. Chris walks down to the light at the end of the trail while I curl up behind a giant fern and wait for my next fight.
The “night walk” is a tradition in the fighting art of Poekoelan Tjimide Tulen. Developed by the Dutch-Indonesian martial artist, Willie Wetzel, Tulen is influenced by Judo, Silat, Kung Fu and Karate. Wetzel brought his art to the United States in 1956 and passed it on to his student, Barbara Niggel, before his death in 1975. To this day, this award-winning fighter is the living head of our art.
Witnesses to our fights in the woods would have seen arms and legs flying in whiplike strikes. They may have seen close-to-the-ground fighting movements, aerial spins, and leaping kicks. They could have heard the growl or hiss of animal energies moving through us, and they most certainly would have heard heavy breathing, impact of foot on belly, and rustling ferns. Bystanders would have seen and heard all of these things and left the forest with the impression that Poekoelan fights are fierce, full contact encounters that one is wise to stay far away from. And they would be right.
But they would be only partially right. For in the space between bowing in to our fighting partners and bowing out, something much quieter, softer, and more transformative takes place than our physical movements would suggest. To me, this paradox feels both true and utterly confounding. How can something as devastating as the strikes we are trained to throw be as positive as our school’s tagline, “Balanced, Compassionate Action,” suggests? I have tiny glimmers of answers for myself: At 36, I discovered that I can do a one-handed cartwheel, fight dudes way bigger and stronger than me, and a hundred harder things I never believed I could do, but the biggest thing I have learned so far is that relying on physical robustness and jacked-up energy is not always the best strategy. That there is great power in being soft, calm, and present.
The first stage of our training is Cun Tao, or basic self-defense. Students learn 108 judo-inspired responses to as many attacks, including several with (fake) weapons. In order to advance to the next level of training, we must complete all 108 attacks in under six minutes. It’s crazy hard. Not only do we have to move fast to flip and take down attackers who may be bigger than us, we have to do so while getting choked or grabbed in a full nelson or faced with a gun. The only way to get through it is to relax, breathe, and trust our bodies to respond faster than immediately.
The many options we have for responding to attacks has been powerful medicine for many of my teammates. Annie, now a black belt, had always known that she could endure anything, but learning the Cun Tao holds shifted the entire narrative of her life from her belief that “I brace myself for what the world offers me” to “I meet it. I transform it.” She now offers that same opportunity for epiphany to women in her self-defense classes at Lewis and Clark College. And as far as I’m concerned, the more women who know they can transform the world, the better.
For Paige, a self-described ADD case, her first Cun Tao class was the first time in her life that she had spent an entire hour focusing on one thing. She was hooked. Twenty years and a fraying fourth-degree black belt later, Paige has spent her career working on political campaigns and thus knows a thing or two about conflict. The first time one of the politicians she was working with got slammed by the media, the candidate had a difficult physical response and emotional breakdown. Paige could relate. The first time she got punched in the head she was overwhelmed to the point of hyperventilation, but the more accustomed to taking physical blows she became, the easier it became to respond to them from a calm place. In both the training hall and her daily life, she finds that reactions to conflict arising out of this groundedness lead to better outcomes for all parties than responses emerging from fear or anger do.
Indeed, one of the benefits of throwing strikes at teammates is that we get immediate physical feedback about the energy from which they arise. A hit from a place of fear feels hard and oppositional, and evokes a hard response. But a hit thrown from a place of pure presence feels energizing and intimate. We learn, as we get feedback in the form of a fear-induced elbow to the temple or a love-powered saber kick to the thigh, that we get back what we give to the world and that love feels better than fear. These lessons unwittingly slip their way into our lives until we can no longer tell the difference between Poekoelaning and not-Poekoelaning, as Emily, a third-degree black belt just about my size, says.
Emily has been training since she was nine years old and, as anyone who has fought her will tell you, she is formidable. One of the many things that makes Emily such an effective fighter is her ability to use her small size to her advantage. “People underestimate you when you’re small. I use that as a tool,” she says. Emily learned early on to fight close in, often using her elbows and knees. Her fighting style shows that our perceived limitations can actually be our greatest assets, and that moving toward risk is often the best choice.
Moving toward risk, of course, is not easy. By calling upon our primal instincts, fighting both shows us our inherent strengths and creates a safe-yet-edgy container in which to transform our common struggles with self-doubt, frustration, and fear of failure into confidence, perseverance, and calm focus. Janesa Kruse says that all this hard work “polishes the stone” of our core selves “until we become the most beautiful jewel of a person.” Annie describes it as peeling away layers to reveal our truest selves. And Danielle, a third-degree black belt, reminds us that “self-defense doesn’t build a barrier to the world, it allows you to be more open. It’s freeing.”
And isn’t that what we all want the most? To meet the world with our guards down, our arms open wide, and the ability handle anything that comes our way?
My arms, however, are wrapped around my knees as I hide behind my fern. I invite the calm of the night forest, the playfulness of the monkey, and the fierceness of the tiger into my being as I wait. By the time I hear twigs snapping beneath my last fighter’s feet, I actually feel at peace. Because tonight, I received a gift on the end of my opponents’ flying fists and feet: the bodily knowledge that I can step out onto a dark, rocky path full of unknown forces, get struck, and–not just endure it–but give it right back with love.